Sound Chat #3 - Rachael Tate (Dialogue Editor)

Hi Rachael, thanks for the chance to interview you, for those that don’t know Rachael Tate’s work as dialogue editor on Exodus: Gods and Kings along with lots of sound editor and ADR recordist credits on Captain Phillips, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, There Will Be Blood and many more. So lets get into the questions:

1- How did you get started?

From the age of about 16 I knew I wanted to get into the film/TV industry but had no real grasp of what each role entailed, so naturally thought I’d be a film director for sure!

I took a TV researcher job during college, then went into TV camera operating before finally knowing film was where I wanted to end up. I was on almost every day searching for any kind of opportunity before applying for a (rarely advertised) runner’s job at a facility called De Lane Lea. It was a big pay drop but it was feature film work so I went for it.

It wasn’t until the interview that I fully understood what exactly happens in the world of post sound and how truly creative you can be. I worked my gap year there before heading off to university, continuing to come back every summer and returning after graduation to eventually progress into the role of ADR Recordist. That’s where my professional sound career really started and I knew I’d found something I could find fulfilment in, which has to be the main reason you choose a career I think.

2- What attracted you to being an ADR recordist?

I felt this was the most hands on way to actually create sound in a studio environment, rather than my other option which would have been Mix Technician, which is as you might imagine a very technical job but you spend a good amount of time in your knees wiring up monitors and cabling up Madi’s – this route is most chosen by someone wishing to become a Re-recoding Mixer and is certainly not creative.

The other main draw to ADR was the sheer variety of jobs you get to be a part of, up to four a day, all with varying specs and clients and requirements, it really keeps you on your toes. It also made me exceptionally fast at editing, as we would record each line and then play it back with an 8 second pre-roll, by which time you would have to have it cut into near-perfect sync, not as easy as it sound on continuous scroll!

The final main benefit was being surrounded by so many creative people, not just actors and directors but what would really count later, Dialogue Editors and Supervising Sound Editors who will always remember good work and never forget if you let them down! It was in this way I was recommended for my initial job in sound editorial.

3- what are the differences between an ADR recordist and a recordist on set?

The ADR Recordist role is the closest we come in post to the live environment of production recording. You are actually in the room, with the actor, attempting to recreate or reimagine lines from a scene that was perhaps shot a year before.

The actor is often out of their comfort zone, without the surroundings and fellow cast to react from, they are having to trust a ’sound guy’, when we tell them we need them to project a little more or sound angrier or more tense, etc. It's a fine line between securing the performance, not treading on any directorial toes and very importantly not pissing off the talent!!

A recordist on set shares a few similarities in terms of a lot of the mic setups and not pissing off the talent but there is a lot less input required in terms of the performance, on the whole. I found the main challenge of set recording was keeping out of the way, almost blending into the surroundings, yet having the balls to kick up a fuss if you weren’t getting your material. This is a tough act to pull off and come out liked enough to retain repeat work. Often a popular sound guy is the one who never asks for anything and keeps quiet, sadly.

4- With your most recent credits being for dialogue editing, what are the most common issues you have to fix?

One of the most common dialogue issues are generally bad clip mic placement, particularly when it's a wide or multi camera shoot and the boom op didn’t stand a chance. Another is generator hum, but there is often not much that can be done about that! The third is extra set noise that wasn’t necessary, for example, if a fireplace is completely off camera – don’t have it on, if it's a mid-shot walk-and-talk, either take their shoes off or add some felt to their soles if you can, same on chair legs. If they do a cup down during the scene, try to make sure at least a couple of times the cup is put down in a space.

If not, wild track what you can. Also, unless the director specifically asks for it on every take, have any background extras mime at least a couple of takes. It's all getting replaced 90% of the time anyway and the most separation we can get at this stage the better, it will literally save thousands and thousands of pounds in post.

5- How important is room tone and wild lines in dialogue editing?

I know how difficult and tiresome it can be to grab those wild tracks and wild readings because when a set wraps, it wraps and it takes one hell of a recordist to actually get them to hold off, shut up and let you do your job.

You would be surprised how few recordists have struck this balance correctly and usually it has absolutely no repercussions for the recordist afterwards if they don’t bother. Often is the case that he delivers his sound rolls to the picture dept and never hears from them again. If he only knew how much one extra take or wild track would have saved the project in manpower, time and money not that even this would likely affect his chances on getting the next job, so sadly the impetus to go the extra mile is lacking for some – but not all my any means and I have been fortunate to work with a couple of excellent location recordists.

The main tip I would stress, if you are going to record wild lines, PLEASE do it immediately after, on the same set, with the same placements of both actors and boom op if possible. Continuity is everything and if you try and catch them later in wardrobe it just won’t be the same and will never get used.

Room tone is great but a minimum of 1min 30secs – 2min is needed and often you need a great relationship with the 1st AD so they can tell you shut everyone the hell up and no, when you say be quiet, it doesn’t mean whisper and keep moving about!

A third option to consider and something we are starting to do more of on my projects is Impulse Response (IR) recordings. If possible, attempt to record a clapper board in each location, maybe at 2 or 3 different distances from the mic. This is really useful in post, allowing us to import these IR’s into programmed like Altiverb and create very closely matched reverb settings for all the foley, FX and ADR.

6- How has boom operating helped you in your other sound department roles?

The biggest way I feel boom operating has helped me (and the main reason I went into it), is to give me a more thorough understanding of the everyday challenges faced by a location sound team. The impossibly wide camera angles, the bad back pain you can get from stand-in on a box with a 20ft long boom pole groaning under the weight of a hefty 816 trying desperately just to get a useable guide track, Ive been there and I know what that’s like. It also helps from the other perspective, knowing what ends up getting ADR’d later means I always tried to get mics in everywhere, in trees, plant pots, under desks, under cars, anywhere I could.

Also, using the wild tracks not just for the lines but getting any running breaths, fight efforts, anything that would stop the picture department having to lay up some awful temp efforts done by a runner on an iPhone.

7- What advice would you give for working with actors that don’t sound too clear on location?

Advice to production recordists? That's a tricky one. Having worked on quite a few films involving mumbly or heavily accented performances, there isn’t really much you can do until post to solve that one, other than maybe talking to the director, or dialect coach if there is one, and pointing out your concerns.

By no means approach the talent directly about any of it, nobody will thank you and you can kiss the repeat work goodbye. Tread very carefully here… and get as many rehearsals and wild tracks recorded as you can! As far as dealing with unclear dialogue in post there are a few tricks you can pull, emphasising the plosives, adding or switching out vowel sounds (especially with accent-based problems), and EQ-ing a little top into it, if it's too mumbly.

These tricks will always work to varying degrees depending on your level of skill and the nature of the clarity issue but I usually use a combination of all three in every film and it helps me work towards my ultimate goal of retaining as much of the original performance while reducing the ADR count to as little as possible. My work, if done well, saves the production a hefty amount of the budget and that is something I am pretty proud of.

8- Any other advice or guidance for new or semi pro recordists out there?

(Most of my important advice is in the answer to question 5 but…) For location recordists, I would say the number one thing to think about is; what kind of recordist do you want to be? Do you want to be the quiet one in the corner, content with not bothering any of the crew with your ‘petty’ sound issues, just hitting record all day – or do you want to be the one whose number one priority is establishing himself as a quality recordist, who finds that fine balance between annoying the crew and choosing the correct moment to state your case and get the material YOU require?

I know it is a tough job and I know the opportunity to sink into the background and keep everyone happy on set, (at the cost of post), is ever present but I would tell anyone starting out in this, that the ones that really make a difference and stand out as masters of their craft have to ruffle a few feathers along the way. If you can manage to do all that but still make everyone think you’re the good guy, you’ve succeeded.

9 – What is the dialogue editor responsible for?

There are several responsibilities but the first is to preserve and restore as much of the original production audio as possible, meaning they are the editors who will be in contact with the location recordist the most.

They are the only editors who will usually touch any of the production sound rolls, with the FX, Foley, BG and Crowd editors all simply adding new material and merely referencing the originals. They are usually (unless it is a huge film) solely responsible for spotting and attending the ADR session, often directing the actors if the director is not present, which is often the case.

On top of this they oversee the whole M&E (Music and Sound Effects) after the final mix is complete, stripping back any English and filling as needed (Room Tone). This is the least glamorous part of the job, after most of the crew has wrapped but it is nevertheless meticulous as the studio have insanely focussed people who check everything we do and make sure we follow entire catalogues of rules about what we keep, how many stems we make and what gets split to options (like main character breaths and non-English dialogue. Told you it was dull.

10 – How do you work with the other members of the sound team?

Dialogue and FX are usually seen as two opposite sides of the same coin, so we do work as a team and have big team meetings together because we have to have all the sound crew working towards the same goals but as there are usually 3/4, even 5 FX editors and often only one or two dialogue editors, it can be seen as a slightly lonely job.

It is what you make it I guess. You could keep your door shut all day and work in your own little world or find ways to work together as we do in my current team. Whenever there are big crowd pieces, or voice design FX or maybe I have some useful PFX I can give to the FX guys, there are crossovers so we keep the communication going. And of course by the final we are all in one big room for, in some cases, months at a time, 6/7 days a week. Lets just say you get to know each other better than most co-workers would.

11 – Can you explain reconforming and conforming dialogue?

We do conforms in sound post – by which we receive an EDL from the picture department which gives us a list of time codes that have been changed/cut and we ‘conform’ our sessions so that we match their latest cut. This happens with increasing regularity till an appallingly late point in the final mix, usually. It is time consuming, even with auto-conform software, which reads the EDL and makes the slits automatically (but not always correctly). Automation running on the tracks can easily get messed up during this process which can really set you back. You have to take your time and do it carefully and frame-accurately or it can make for some very embarrassing moments on the mix stage.

12 – When does something get decided if its ADR?

The director and picture editor usually have final say on what makes the ADR cue list. You usually wait till the assembly edit has settled down, then go through the entire film seeing what you can help with editing/cleaning up, then from that create a list of what you would like to cue up.

Then you add any notes from the editor/director about line changes they want to make and take all those cues to an ADR spotting session where the editor and hopefully director will attend and run through all the cues with you. If they don’t want a cue replaced, you scratch it from the list and that’s that.

13 – How much freedom do you have in choosing alternative takes?

I am a huge fan of using as much alternate take material as possible as opposed to ADR. Unless it is the kind of multi-camera film I recently worked on where you only have maybe 3/4 takes a time, there are usually lots of options for replacing noisy or badly pronounced dialogue. I tend to think that if I would be actually changing the intonation of a sentence with the alt, I will usually leave it unless it is super urgent and there's no chance of ADR.

The director picked that take for a reason and he won’t want you touching it in any noticeable way. The key is, replace as little as you can get away with. I usually send as many of these as I can as a mono bounce to the Avid and let the editor and director sign off on them. This way there are no sudden surprises at the dub and everyone’s happy with the nice short ADR list.

So what did you think to all of that? Please do leave comments below to keep the conversation flowing. Until next time.